Alex James talks exclusively to The Grocer about his Booker card, PowerPoint presentations, EU subsidies, obscure cheeses… and Blur
Pop Will Eat Itself may turn out to be the most prophetic name ever for a band. It certainly reflects where Alex James is coming from. “There are independent cheesemakers now like there used to be indie bands 20 years ago,” says Blur’s famously cheese-loving bass guitarist. “You can’t be in an indie band anymore - that business model doesn’t work - but you can be an independent cheesemaker, making unusual cheese.”
If it sounds bizarre to talk about business models with a member of one of the biggest bands of all time - James is currently rehearsing for a string of sold-out summer concerts including the closing ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics - the fact is James has hit the big time, too, as an independent cheesemaker, winning listings in Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda for his increasingly populist cheeses.
And while it helps if, as a rock star, you’re rolling in it, it quickly becomes apparent that cheese is not, for James, a lifestyle business. Where once he read NME, James’ bible is now The Grocer. And in a wide-ranging interview he reveals his lifelong interest in manufacturing; how he has agonised to deliver cheeses with mass appeal; and frets over Powerpoint presentations to supermarket buyers. Even his new autobiography, entitled ‘All Cheeses Great and Small - a Life Less Blurry’, reflects how his priorities have, as he puts it, blurred.
James’s love affair with food began at an early age. Growing up in a B&B in Bournemouth his grandfather - a trained chef - taught him to cook a full English breakfast for guests. Even at the time he was captivated by the idea of cooking on an industrial scale. “My mother and grandfather would go to the cash and carry and come back with big sacks of spuds and crates of eggs. I found it all very glamorous. You had to be 12 to go to a cash and carry so on my 12th birthday I went with my mum. It was one of the best birthdays ever.”
While James’s fascination with C&Cs continues to this day - he brandishes his Booker card to prove it - his gastronomic tastes evolved thanks largely to his father, who introduced him to the joys of cheese.
“In anyone’s professional life there are moments you look back on and think ‘wow - that was a really formative incident’. In terms of music, The Beatles film Help! really captivated me, and I listened to Blue Monday by New Order constantly. With cheese it was seeing Red Leicester for the first time at a party on Boxing Day in 1976.”
Visits to France during his teenage years “switched on his taste buds” and further strengthened his love of fromage. By the time he was a member of Blur, playing gigs around the world, he was continually gorging on the stuff. “In Smash Hits when it talked about the members in Blur it was ‘Damon likes Herman Hesse, Graham likes skateboards and Alex likes cheese. Wherever we went people would throw it at me or present it to me in hotel lobbies or tell me where to get the good stuff, so touring the world was just an excuse to go around discovering new cheeses.”
When Blur disintegrated in 2003, James - with a bit of a party animal reputation - wasn’t sure what to do next, but in a whirlwind few months he got married and swapped a bachelor pad in London for a farm, fulfilling the cliché that old rockers don’t die, they become farmers. “I met Roger Daltrey recently and we weren’t talking about My Generation or Substitute - but we had lots to say about single farm payments and European farm subsidies.”
James instantly fell in love with his Oxfordshire farm, which gave him a “sense of purpose and something to do”, and before long he had turned his hand to cheesemaking, producing small amounts of handmade cheese such as Blue Monday, Little Wallop and Farleigh Wallop - the latter won best goats cheese at the 2008 British Cheese Awards. The cheeses were sold through farm shops and delis, with James also gaining a listing in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. But the biggest deal to date followed a chance encounter in London that made him rethink his approach to cheesemaking entirely.
“I was walking down a street in Soho one afternoon when somebody stopped me in the street and said ‘I had your blue cheese after lunch at Christmas and thought it was absolutely amazing’. He was a chef and said he couldn’t afford to buy the cheese all year round. And that was what made me realise that I needed to rethink what I was doing and try and make cheeses that were more affordable.”
After “fiddling around a bit” in his ‘foodio’, he developed three cheeses he tested on his kids one evening. They loved them so much they wanted them again the next morning for breakfast. Realising he was on to something, he started contacting supermarket buyers. Asda bit and last year he launched the Alex James Presents range, which includes bread-shaped flavoured Cheddar, flavoured wedges of Cheddar and Cheddar melting cubes.
“I spent a long time developing that Asda range and I’m really pleased with it,” he says. “I nursed each one from conception through to the marketing as I’ve done with the handmade cheeses, and for a cheese that’s really affordable to manufacture we’re delivering something really tasty.”
As for the potential criticism that cheese snobs might aim at an artisan producer going down the mass production route, James says he doesn’t care.
“The best block Cheddar, like a seriously strong vintage, is 95% to 98% as good as a Montgomery Cheddar because so much investment and thought has gone into the production. The idea of something being handmade is synonymous with something that’s very good quality, but there are just as many shit people making shit cheese by hand as there are big companies mindlessly churning out endless Cheddar that no one cares about but taste good.”
The mission to deliver great-tasting, affordable cheeses continues for James, who is weighing up working on a new range of cheeses from overseas. He’s off to Bulgaria soon to research Bulgarian cheeses and would like to make a mozzarella called ‘Wonderball’. He’s also looking at how he can step up production of some of his existing artisanal cheeses.
“The sheeps milk cheese we’re making won gold at the World Cheese Awards, which is seriously good. It wouldn’t work in the supermarkets because it’s too expensive and we can only make 12 a week so I’d like to expand that somehow.”
A beer-washed cheese is also on the cards. “Patricia from [London-based cheese shop] La Fromagerie brought me some cheese made by a silent order of nuns in Normandy and it’s the most obscene thing I’ve ever tasted. It’s like pure sex. It’s really smelly and it’s completely oozy and gooey.”
That’s if time allows. James concedes that every day he has a hundred things to do but “only has time for five”. “It’s not like a normal celebrity brand. I literally am in boardrooms giving PowerPoint presentations to cheese executives at supermarkets.”
But James knows what turns him on these days. “Playing to 75,000 people in Hyde Park is nice but it’s not as exciting as inventing a cheese made with beer. Blur is pure play - completely exhilarating and I can do it without thinking. But cheesemaking takes every ounce of my strength, determination and drive.”
Alex James on…
Chefs: “Chefs are the new rock stars. They’re buying yachts and aeroplanes and marrying supermodels like Duran Duran were in the 80s.”
Foodies: “I think the people who liked Blur and used to spend their pocket money on CDs now want to spend their disposable income on something nice to eat. It’s all part of the same thing - being discerning about good food and music.”
The Grocer: “I can’t talk to the cheese buyer at Waitrose unless I know what’s going on in the industry. So I read The Grocer. I used to read the NME in the same kind of way because it tells you what’s happening and who is doing what. It’s also a great source of material for my column in The Sun. I owe you a debt of gratitude.
His Sun column: “There’s a disconnect between the sort of food programmes we see on TV and what people really eat. Most food journalism is f**king pornography. Who eats the stuff they cook on Masterchef? That’s part of what I love about writing for The Sun. It’s talking about what people really do eat. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
His favourite cheese: “Gruyère is the one that never touches the sides but I think Cheddar is the best cheese in the world. Nothing melts like Cheddar. The best cheddar? Montgomery, Quickes, Keen’s - depends on what time of year it is.”
Danish cheese: “It is like Danish pornography - it’s overwhelmingly strong and dirty.”
The best cheese accompaniment: “It’s got to be beer - any cheese is improved by the presence of beer.”
Champagne: “It’s the biggest racket in history. It’s cider with marketing and it costs £100 a bottle.”
Whether or not Blur will record a new song: “I dunno. I’d love to. We get together from time to time, but the thing with Blur is there are four people and depending on who you ask and what day of the week it is you will get a different answer.”